Friday, 31 December 2010

Yet another blog with a Happy New Year message

2010. Not a great year for me if truth be told. So, with the last few hours of it remaining, I will not be too sorry to wave it bye-bye and as the day comes to a close welcome 2011, as it trundles towards us on that great conveyor belt called time.

As all bloggers/naturalists, I have a few plans and goals for the coming year. I've already told you about the Beddington Sewage Farm botanical survey. The reason that I haven't let you in on the others is that, well, there aren't any. I'm going to let whatever comes my way happen, without any hurrying up on my part. I will continue to enjoy my local birding - this year has seen some truly memorable birds within ten miles of home (Ferruginous Duck, Quail, Hen Harrier, Waxwing, Mealy Redpoll and Common Crane). With patience and a bit of effort there should be more like that in the next twelve months.

Beyond that, my only plan is to enjoy what I see and what I do, regardless of luck or a lack of it. It all evens itself out in the end...

To you, dear reader; to my linked blogger friends and to anyone who just 'gets' the natural world around us - a Happy New Year to you. See you in 2011.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Botanical plans

I'm already getting psyched up about 2011. Most of my plans revolve around Beddington SF (birding and botanically) although I certainly won't be neglecting Canons Farm - someone has to keep chasing Devil Birder's species total!

Botany at Beddington will be quite an eye-opener for me. It is an area that has been botanised lightly in the past, although 'lightly' has entailed some highly competent botanists giving the place short bursts of 'grilling'. There are areas that have been untouched by pesticides and have a settled flora, and other areas in which the ground is perpetually disturbed, allowing only those opportunistic species to quickly get a toe-hold before being bulldozed back into the ground.

I am expecting the unexpected - landfill will throw up plenty of aliens. Pictured above is Celery-leaved Buttercup, a feature of sludge lagoons on the farm. I will post regularly on next years findings...

Monday, 27 December 2010

How many?

A post-Christmas birdwatch was enjoyed at Beddington Sewage Farm today, myself already warm with the glow of enough calories on board to fuel the running of Dungeness 'C' reactor and happy with the England cricket teams continued demolition of Australia.

On arrival it was obvious that the landfill site was operational, as thousands of gulls were present. After settling down, having had an hour or more scanning and also having walked across to the enclosed lagoons, the time came to estimate those numbers present. My gut reaction was to plump for a total larid mass of, lets say, seven or eight thousand individuals, based on nothing more than educated guesswork. However, when I tried to add a little bit of common sense to the process, it only helped to prove that my initial estimate was woefully short. I was quite happy to claim a fairly positive count of 375 Lesser Black-backed Gulls. So I used this as a starting point - a number not estimated but actually counted out, one gull at a time. I reckoned that there were at least double the number of Common Gulls present, so I arrived at a total of 750 for them. Pete, Johnny and Frank now joined in. For every Common Gull we had seen there were at least 15, maybe even 20 Black-headed present. Taking the lower figure of 15 and multiplying this by the number of Common Gulls we reached a total of 11,250 Black-headed. Herring Gulls were plentiful, but not as numerous as Black-heads, so we settled on a total of 4,500. Other gull species present were: Great Black-backed (15), Yellow-legged (2), Mediterranean (1) plus a rather fine first-winter Iceland. So, the gull grand total was in fact 16,894, rather more than my initial hunch.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

It's all gone quiet over there...

I haven't posted for almost a week, a long gap for me. So, I hear you ask, what have I been up to Steve? Not a lot actually. In fact, it's been bloody frustrating. First up is the snow. All the main roads are now clear, but the side roads in hilly Banstead are another matter. Then there's the lack of birding due to me having to work. I've been getting texts from plenty of local birders picking off Waxwings, Mealy Redpolls, Iceland Gulls, Firecrests - the list goes on. And when you are stuck in an office, sans any of that lot it can be quite depressing. Plus, the Perth test match didn't exactly fill me with the joys of the season either.

However, there was good news. My wife spoiled me rotten and gave me a new mobile phone for my birthday (the one with an apple on it) and I immediately went to Bird Guides and downloaded the 'Birds of Northern Europe' app. I now spend most of my time playing the songs and calls of almost 400 species of bird. A great way to waste time...

Friday, 17 December 2010

Winter leaf

Back in the first week of December, standing in snow, I scanned the horizon and something didn't quite seem right. After several minutes (it was cold, my brain was going-slow) I realised what was troubling me. I was looking at a wall of green - a line of oak trees, some two hundred metres in length, still in full leaf. Most of this leaf was still green in colour, with little bronze and sickly ochre on show. Since then I've paid attention to what trees are still in leaf. Oaks are still hanging on, as are Silver Birch and Sycamore. I cannot remember this from previous winters, although I may have overlooked it in the past. The skeletal tree branches on a winter horizon are still being muffled by leaf, and that, to me, is puzzling.

This week in North Downs and beyond land: I've dipped on the Belmont Waxwings four times; it is snowing again; I have high hopes of a good flyover this weekend.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Why Waxwings?

Waxwings, Waxwings everywhere. Down here they are easier to find than Greenfinches. Almost every blog that you visit will entertain you with images (yes Gavin, not photographs!) of the crested little fellas, all lined-up on a tree top like a group of Santa's elves. The only reason that I haven't uploaded any images (sorry Gav, really) of them is that I haven't taken any myself. Now, I usually rally against the ubiquitous on blogs. Every spring we parade pictures (pictures - just for you Gavin) of Wheatears, violets and Brimstone butterflies as if we are the only bloggers who have thought of doing so. Therefore we all end up with a parade of sameness. However, with Waxwings it's different. Why?

Is it because they a good looking? I don't think so. Bullfinches are good looking. So are Goldfinches, but we don't all get click happy with them, do we? Is it down to rarity? To a point, maybe, although they aren't really any rarer than a Common Redpoll this winter. And so far Mealies have been left alone by the camera pointers, haven't they. Maybe they are easy targets because they are relatively tame and sit on top of things? But so do Starlings.

I reckon it's a combination of all the above, plus a primal attraction to things nomadic. They come from the arctic wastes, hang around adding exotica to housing estates, industrial estates and roundabouts and then flee back eastwards when the berries have all gone. Plus, they also have one of the loveliest calls that a bird can make.

Even though I have seen hundreds of Waxwings in the UK, and quite a few in the past month, I still walk the streets looking for them. If I came across a flock tomorrow, I would still trawl the local area again the day after.

I think I might have stumbled upon the real reason that we cannot get enough of them. It's because we have no idea when they might come back and visit us.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Bloggers block

I stare at the computer screen and my fingers freeze above the keyboard. Nothing comes. There is nothing to say. No pictures of Waxwings and no pithy comment. Sorry...

Thursday, 9 December 2010

When mediocre is better than good

We were having a chat at the University of Beddington the other day when the subject of bird photography came up. Now, the quality of the images that we see today are, on the whole, nothing short of incredible. Frame fillers, perfect feather detail and dots that can blow up to become perfectly identifiable species are now accepted as the norm. It's not like it used to be.

However, we all agreed that these 'perfect' pictures can be a little too perfect. They somehow introduce us to the avian subject in such a way that we feel we are feasting our eyes on the bird with such familiarity that, even if we haven't actually seen it ourselves, we have! It's all too real.

If you don't know what the hell I'm on about, think back to those old grainy black-and-white pictures that used to grace the annual rarities committee report in British Birds during the 1970s and early 1980s. They were generally of distant birds, not quite in perfect focus, a bit grainy, but maintained an air of mystery. Because of this they gave the subject an air of being unobtainable ("like a picture of a claimed yeti or bigfoot" as one of the Beddington students put it).

There is something spectral about the photos of the Suffolk Houbara Bustard, the Bardsey Yellow Warbler and , indeed, the Beddington Killdeer. None of them frame fillers, with no fine feather detail on offer, just bags of character, making you yearn to see them.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Reasons to be cheerful.

England have won the second Ashes test by an innings...

Tottenham are playing in the Champions League tonight having already qualified for the knock-out stages...

the Common Crane is still finding Beddington SF to its liking...

and most importantly it's my youngest daughter's birthday...HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESS!

Monday, 6 December 2010

LNHS to get new recording area?

The London Natural History Society, that was formed in 1545 to enable King Henry VIII to keep tabs on his moth and beetle list, has always maintained the same recording area, that of all places within a twenty mile radius of St. Paul's Cathedral. This was pretty clever of those 16th century naturalists as construction of the cathedral was not started until 1675...

Recently there have been a number of high profile birds that have had the bloody nerve of appearing in places that may be, or may not be, within the LNHS recording area. The most famous is the singing Savi's Warbler at Amwell Gravel Pits, which decided to confuse all comers by taking up position in a bush that stradled the invisible recording area boundary. Confusion reigned.

I can exclusively reveal, via a source close to the LNHS hierarchy, that to stop such confusion in the future the society are going to ammend the recording area into one that is perfectly easy to see. As from January 1st 2012, and in celebration of the capital being the Olympic host, the M25 will become the limit of what can be counted as 'London'.

No longer will natural history recorders wonder whether they are 'in or out'. There will be some opposition to this highly controversial and highly secretive move. Those who have made this decision fear that the birding fraternity will be up in arms at the loss of certain sites and certain birds which will effect their precious London lists.

However, these birders should be thankful. Early indications suggested that such sites as Rainham Marshes were to be removed from the recording area as, to quote, 'it isn't proper London'. The use of the M25 as a clear border will be welcomed by many, including birders at Holmethorpe Sand Pits. The removal of 'rough elements' from the city, using their countryside-placed sandpits as a convenient place to London year tick, will go down well with the genteel Surrey birders.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

London and Surrey unblocker

There I was prostrate on the sofa, re-watching Series One of Mad Men with man flu as company when the communication system went into overload. Texts from Johnny Allan - 'Common Crane landed on lake at Beddington' - followed moments later by a phone call from David Campbell - "Are you going?" - convinced me to rise from my sick bed, Lazarus-like, and hotfoot it to the sewage farm.

I collected David from his aborted Canons Farm stakeout and we arrived promptly at Beddington without any negative texts being received or accidents on the fast melting slush and ice. A brief jog onto site (yes, I can still run if prompted) saw us feasting our eyes upon a fine juvenile Common Crane (pictured above). It seemed in good condition and stayed for the rest of the day. This was a big bird for London and Surrey listers, the first truly twitchable wild one. Most of the Beddington crew were fairly blase about it (they had seen an adult fly over the farm back in the spring) and I had already scored in Surrey with a bird on Thursley Common in the 1980s. But for many of the 100 birders who visited the farm, it was a case of losing their Grus grus virginity.

Friday, 3 December 2010

A murder of Crows?

A new blog appears in my list to the right of this post. The Crow Council has been set up by Alan Tilmouth, and comprises a group of hand-picked bloggers who are more broadsheet than red top, more bagette than sliced white loaf, more Melvyn Bragg than Paul O'Grady - you get the picture. They promise to take hold of a subject and put it through their collective wringer. First up: apprenticeship in birding.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Snow joke

Yes folks, the white stuff that our 'northern bloggers' have been telling us about has finally arrived amongst the pearly king and queens, Barbara Windsor and the Krays. Even the posh people sitting in their Barbour jackets had to put down their frappacino's to stare in amazement as flakes of whiteness, known locally as the 'northern ague', started to settle on the gold-paved streets. The 1cm deep drifts stopped traffic in its tracks, reminding us of the terrible winter storm of 2009 when several millimetres of snow ground London's airports to a three-month standstill. I can now reveal that, after several minutes of the worst London winter on record, there are 27 different words in the Cockney language for 'snow'...

Sunday, 28 November 2010

BWP shock in Banstead


Rarer than a Black Lark. More uncommon than a BirdForum thread with a cohesive outcome. Fewer occurances than Jonathan Woodgate in a Spurs shirt...

That is, at approx 21.35hrs yesterday evening, I walked over to the bookshelf, reached up to the top shelf and took down a volume of Birds of the Western Palearctic. I then proceeded to open it and actually read from it. I have not done this for almost twenty years - and that is a genuine claim. The reason for me doing so was to find out the specific species of plant that Tree Sparrows ate seeds from, and, by and large, the great work had the information.

I cannot help but feel that as nice as they look on the bookshelf (top left of picture) they were a waste of my money. Hooked in from the start (1977, £25 for volume one), I carried on until volume five and then decided that I could live without it. It was out of date before it was published and the artwork was a selection of the good, the bad and the ugly (Cusa's ducks anyone?) I did not complete the set until OUP sold off the excess stock after the series had been completed, when I picked the remaining volumes up for a song. All of my volumes, some of them thirty years old, look as new as the day that I bought them.

So, until I want to check on the stomach contents of Cormorants from Finland in 2030 (when I'll be 71) the books can stay on the shelf, looking pretty and studious.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

If you don't like gulls, look away now

The cold weather had frozen both of the lakes at Beddington this morning, but this state of affairs did mean that plenty of the gulls that were scavenging on the landfill came and stood on the ice for us to scan at leisure. Among them was this 4th winter Caspian Gull (not an adult as its bill is still showing some trace of immaturity.) The picture below shows how much darker the mantle colour is from the nearby Herring Gulls (the Caspian is to the right, facing away from us).

The most numerous species was Black-headed, with at least 7,500 present, along with 350 Common and 50 Lesser Black-backed. Neither of the two Med Gulls seen during the week gave themselves up.


Go on, even if you don't like gulls all that much, they do make a spectacle, and on a day like today when nothing much is moving, it is something to look through with the added bonus of a good chance of picking up the uncommon.

I did miss 2 Waxwing that flew through south-eastwards. I was off checking a stream for Little Egret (seen during the week). No, I didn't see it.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Why do we blog?

Is it because we want to share observations and ideas with other like-minded souls? Is it because we want to show off our prowess at what we do? Is it because we have a need to be a part of something greater than an individual? Is it because we need confirmation that what we do and think is normal? Is it because we need confirmation that what we do and think is quirky? Is it all of the above? And does it even matter...

Do you have a stat counter? Do you check it religiously to see how many visitors your blog has received? Do you assess the quality of your posts by how many comments others leave? Do you comment on other bloggers posts and do you do so because you want to, or because it might result in them commenting on yours?

Do you look at other bloggers posts and feel a sense of envy when they post top class material? Does it spur you on to improve or does it make you want to pack it up? Are you aware of who these other bloggers are? Would you recognise them ? Would you like them as people?

How did we communicate before blogs? That is, communicate to people that we didn't know existed? We couldn't. And because we couldn't, we didn't want to - or need to. But we can now. What hasn't been invented or rolled out yet that will create opportunities for our counterparts in ten, twenty, thirty years time? How will that revolutionise what they (we) do.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Confessions of a rough sleeper

One element of twitching that seems to have disappeared is the rough sleeping. Now, it was never comfortable and it often involved more of the 'rough' than the 'sleeping', but never the less, it was taken on as a given part of the twitching ritual, which along with hitching, army surplus coats and Mars Bars made you what you were proud to be - a proper twitcher. During my brief affair with the genre, I slept rough regularly, mainly to save money but also to be 'on site' for a dawn raid on the bird. I therefore proudly announce my memorable rough moments, scored for your delectation and to be used as a guide to any tyros out there that may be contemplating spending time out in the elements.

Walberswick Bus Shelter, Suffolk
When: New Years Eve 1977
Conditions: Damp but mild
Quality of sleep: Fairly good, due to copious amounts of beer downed in nearby pub.
Drawbacks: need to get up for a wee on several occasions due to said beer. Bus shelter smelt of urine. Drunks staggering past first-footing.
Score: 6 out of 10

Lowestoft sea front
When: January 1978
Conditions: clear and cold
Quality of sleep: Awful.
Drawbacks: A chill breeze found its way inside the sleeping bag and clothing. Three days in the field without a wash was taking its toll. Hard concrete floor not great for insulation.
Score: 2 out of 10

A barn in Yorkshire
When: June 1979
Conditions: Warm
Quality of sleep: Good. Very few interuptions.
Drawbacks: Scuttling of rodents, fear of farmer waking us up with a pitchfork at some ungodly hour.
Score: 8 out of 10

Falmouth, Cornish clifftop
When: March 1980
Conditions: Mild for time of year
Quality of sleep: Good, due to sandy soil acting as a natural mattress.
Drawbacks: Waves crashing on beach did not have the soporific effect as hoped.
Score: 8 out of 10

Norfolk church
When: summer 1980
Conditions: dry, then very wet
Quality of sleep: good then dire
Drawbacks: the entrance hall of the church was dry, comfortable and homely. The vicar that came to lock up at 10.30 cast us out into the night that involved walking around, shetering under trees and dodging heavy downpours.
Score: 8, then 0 out of 10.

I'm glad that I had these experiences. To sleep out in the open air, to look at the stars, to listen to the night-time call of birds - mainly owls and common waders, but also Stone Curlews - are experiences that are worth fortunes. The connection to the place and its wildlife is never stronger, your senses never more heightened. Even in a piss-puddled bus shelter...

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

2010 review - yes, really

Dungeness. Shingle. Lighthouses and shacks. The White-tailed Plover is two miles to the north-west eating medicinal leeches.

Dog's Mercury on a Surrey woodland floor wins my 'Best photograph of the year taken by Steve Gale' award, awarded to me by me after me voting for it.

2010 review? In November? Yes, I'm afraid so. Every other blogger will be packaging up a compendium of highlights to grip the rest of us off with, so I thought that I'd get in a bit earlier. And I promise not to grip you off...

This was the year in which I got sick at tired of blogging, and, after two years and 500+ posts, killed my site off. Totally. Wiped everything. By August I found that my fingers were once again twitching at the computer keyboard, so 'yet again' formed 'North Downs and Beyond.' Oh you lucky people...

In my quest to be the UK's top lister at compiling lists, I created yet another - my 'North-east Surrey uber patch'. This is basically all of my local patches strung together, that form a mosaic of habitat from sewage farm, sand pits, heathland, farmland and woodland. It makes sense to me, if nobody else. I could, given strong legs and a long summer day, visit them all on foot in the same day. I have compiled a systematic list of the birds (currently 201 species) and am working on a checklist of the plants and lepidoptera. I tell you this, when I retire I will not ever have nothing to do.

2010 also saw my return to birdwatching as my principle natural history interest. Plants and moths weren't exactly side-lined, but time spent in the field often involved a telescope rather than a net or lens. After an absence of 16-years I returned to Beddington Sewage Farm, the place where I cut my ornithological teeth. As access is strictly by group membership I was delighted to rejoin and be handed a key to the magic kingdom. This is the land of Killdeer and Glaucous-winged Gull after all.
A week at Dungeness in mid-July was never designed with birds in mind, although the medicinal leech eating White-tailed Plover, a Great White Egret and a pair of Purple Herons had other ideas. Back home it was quite lively. Within a twenty minute walk of my house I saw Quail, Hen Harrier and waxwing (thanks largely to David), plus an in-and-out Ferruginous Duck at Holmethorpe.
My quest to photograph 500 species of plant before the years end was realised by July (I don't know why I continue to set myself such arbitary goals). It was a quiet year for botanical forays, although I did see Purple Gromwell in Devon, Narrow-leaved Lungwort in Hampshire and Deptford Pink and Stinking Hawk's-beard in Kent.
As much as I moan and bleat on within the confines of these posts I do actually feel quite upbeat about things. Now, if this were a film, to counter my positive declaration I would now suffer some terrible natural history curse, such as being struck by sudden blindness in the presence of rarity and beauty. However, all I ask of 2011 is that it is half as interesting as 2010.
Now please excuse me - there are still several weeks left in the year.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Local Mealies

Yesterday afternoon I wandered onto Headley Heath in the company of my wife, younger daughter Jessica and Amber the cocker spaniel. And what a scene of cosy domesticity we all made, man and wife wandering along arm in arm, daughter and dog at our side until - a flock of 150 Redpolls flew in, buzzing and trilling above our heads. Of course I had taken my binoculars with me, and of course I scanned through the finches. They landed in a close Silver Birch and almost immediately two of them shone out from the others as being slightly larger and paler birds. They looked very good for Mealy, but before I could get any more on them they all burst into the air and dispersed. Hmmm...

I alerted Johnny Allan who is attempting to break his own Surrey year listing record and still needed Common (Mealy) Redpoll for 2010. Although I couldn't claim 100% Mealy, I had seen enough to suggest that his time could be well spent combing the heath for the Redpoll flock.

And so, together with a gang of Beddington birders, he returned this morning and they duly located up to 400 Lesser Redpolls, of which a minimum of three were nailed down as definite Mealies. It's a good local bird. The race is now on to find an even rarer Arctic...

Sunday, 21 November 2010

My Yellow Brain

Meet Yellow Brain Fungus - one of two additions to my 'UK All Taxa' list today. The other was also a species of fungi, Split Porecrust. I did take the latter's photograph, but the results were not up to much. The Yellow Brain Fungus was found in my back garden on the branch of a Himalayan Nutmeg. This species is meant to be parasitic on other species of fungi, although I couldn't see its host.

Of local note were a flock of Waxwings that took up residency only a mile from where I live. I wandered along yesterday morning to pay my respects. A few of the human residents who live in the houses around where the Waxwings have chosen to raid the rowans were keen to find out what all of the middle-aged men with binoculars were looking at, and seemed pleased to be shown the tufty trillers. Most had heard of this species from Autumnwatch and one even asked me if Lee Evans would be turning up, as he had watched the infamous BBC4 Twitchers programme.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Time to take stock

There's a lot of anger out there! Stewart, Alan and Gavin are not happy boys at all, and they represent but a small sample of the 'middle-aged blogger' out there (sorry boys, anyone over 35 years old counts in my definition of that particular demographic).

It's almost a given, a universal law, that us human beings think that the younger generations get it wrong, that they don't know how well off they are, and do not hold dear such old cherished values as manners, dignity and gratefulness that we elders still clutch tightly to our chests. It's also the way of the older and more experienced practitioner to look down at the newcomers and Johnny-come-lately's as if they are in need of pity, ridicule and - even more damning - to be ignored altogether. Not everyone thinks this way, but enough do to make it far from uncommon.

This is where it has all gone horribly wrong.

Why should a newcomer or youngster want to follow such miserable old gits into this life of natural history appreciation if they get frequent knock backs. Why should they continue if there is no encouragement. In which case, who will be left to carry the torch when we all inevitably die?

There is a counter argument, and that is that the behaviour of some of the new order is based not just in ignorance of etiquete, but in an ignorance of common sense, social manners and a lack of true appreciation of what is around them. This is gross generalisation I know, and also a case of sitting on the fence, but I have always seen things in 'grey' throughout my life and hardly ever in black and white.

Alan's post in particular got me thinking. How am I helping the future of natural history study? Should it matter? So I conducted a simple experiment. If I died tonight, what would my legacy be to the natural history of the UK? What would I leave behind?

Not a lot as it happens...

My possessions: notebooks (in a skip most probably, maybe one or two kept as family mementoes), books (mostly given away to friends), optics (kept by the family but not used in earnest). Net result: no tangible trace.

My data: I have kept records since 1974, they have all been sent off, each year, to the relevant committees and clubs. Net result: a small contribution to the overall picture of UK natural history in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

My 'human' legacy: no member of my family has taken up any natural history study beyond the enjoyment of seeing the odd thing on walks or birds in the garden. No friend or aquaintance, as far as I know, has been 'converted' into an active participant. Net result: a handful of people that will appreciate natural history in the future and might possibly join the RSPB at some point, but not become actively involved in its safeguard.

My efforts: most of them selfish. No fundraising (not beyond membership fees at any rate), no conservation work, a little administrative undertaking. Net result: a pretty empty space.

Being brutally honest, beyond my enjoyment and recording of wildlife, my contribution towards its safeguard and in helping others to become passionate about it is poor. Very poor. Maybe I am getting to a time in my life where I need to start putting back into the hobby some of what I have taken out.

This blogging lark is good for the soul. You can come clean, it's carthartic, but you also run the risk of reading some hard truths in other peoples posts whether they are directed at you personally or not.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6....

I've always counted birds. Give me a flock and I will count it. Put me in a hide with a notebook and pen and I will fill the paper with numbers. I believe that I have a form of Tourette's which inflicts me by my having to put a number to everything that I see. I can't help it. It gives me as much joy to increase my record count of a species as it does to see a scarce bird. Last Sunday I set a new Jackdaw record - 1400! Better than the Short-eared Owl that circled overhead an hour before. Go on, ask me a species and I will tell you my record count. Turtle Dove? 150 (a single flock along a Suffolk hedgerow in 1976 as you ask). Common Crane? 33, on a misty, murky October afternoon in 1982 at Dungeness. You see, it's an illness. There's no cure. If I'm in a meadow surrounded by orchids I count every spike. When I look in my moth trap, I count the buggers. And it's not just birds. How many albums have I got? 520 on vinyl and 325 on CD. They are round numbers you might have noticed - I do like a round number. Maybe it's because a big flock always ends in a 0 or 5. You cannot have a flock of 7,346 Starlings - it's got to be 7,400. My Cranes are allowed to remain at 33 because they are large, flew slowly and allowed me to count them accurately. The 150 Turtle Doves could have actually numbered 147 or 153, because, truthfully, they were estimated.

Seawatching and vizmig are Nirvana for people like me. The birds pass by to be collected, to be counted, to be collated, to be committed to the database. When driving, the Common Buzzard over Clackett's Lane services on the M25 isn't just a Buzzard, it's the third Buzzard of the journey. The flock of Pied Wagtails on a playing field as I pass by aren't a flock of Pied Wagtails, they are 14 Pied Wagtails.

The irony of all this is, I hated maths at school and was crap at it. Instead of asking me such questions as "If John walks 100 yards in two minutes and his school is still 725 yards away after he has been walking for five minutes, then how long has he walked once he gets there?" it might have been better all round if the questions had been dressed up, such as "Steve has seen 55 Waxwings, 25 Bramblings and 150 Goldfinches in 30 seconds. If the visible migration carries on at this rate, what is his total after five minutes?"

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Zen and the art of ornithological maintenance

Contentment is something that I have rarely experienced when it comes to my study of the natural world. When I first picked up a pair of binoculars and started looking at birds I had a burning need to get out there and try and see everything there was to be seen. Nothing was ever enough. There was always more to seek. More to identify. More to write down.

As I gained experience I felt the need to be accepted by the others who persued my interests. I wanted them to look upon me a not just competent, but good at what I did. I wanted a reputation as someone who was reliable. Who found rare things. Who was able to act as an expert. These things I strived for, but of course never satisfied myself that I ever achieved. So I pushed myself harder, went out of my way to infiltrate and ingratiate within the right circles, tried to be seen in the right places at the right time.

But I was never destined for greatness. Was never a real contender. A career, a marriage, having children, they all became the focus of my waking hours and relegated the 'other stuff' to a weekend daliance, to infrequent holidays, to a dream of 'what might have been'.

What might have been.

I think I know what might have been, and that is, if truth be told, not a lot. I didn't have the killer instinct in me, and I never have had. There would have been no crazy flights in chartered light aircraft to remote Scottish islands to get a tick. There never would have been dawn til dusk vigils at headlands for seven days a week either. I wouldn't have dropped everything to go to Essex to see the latest dragonfly addition to the British list. Or hunted all of the Herefordshire beechwoods to track down that Ghost Orchid. I wouldn't have spent the hours and hours of study to become an expert in grasses and sedges and rushes. I would have baulked at sorting out the many, many beetles and flies.

So why am I now content? It's because I now know that I have stopped fooling myself that I am in some way a 'player' in the world of natural history. I've been kidding myself for too long that I was in self-imposed exile, biding my time and waiting to be unleashed once more into the field, to take on all comers and ride triumphantly back into the natural history world. I may be a middle-aged man, but I was still dreaming of scoring that last-minute goal in an FA Cup final, of hitting the winning run in an Ashes series, of playing a killer guitar solo at Glastonbury, of collecting an oscar as leading man in LA - or even finding a first for Britain.

It isn't going to happen and I'm happy and relaxed about that. What I do now and how I do it, I am happy with. If I stumble upon something unusual then great! If I can share it with others, then all the better. If I cock up an identification, so what? I have, for too long, pressurised myself in my interests. To accept that I have never been a contender is liberating. It's a shame that my immaturity has meant that I have come to that conclusion thirty years later than I should have done.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Lush growth

For mid-November, there is still an awful lot of healthy - and new - growth at Beddington Sewage Farm. The banks of the settling beds are still awkward to navigate because of knee-deep nettle, mallow, Fat-hen and Hemlock. The picture above is of Celery-leaved Buttercup, with quite a few plants still in good flower, mainly on the sludge lagoons.

Bird-wise the highlight was a Short-eared Owl that came in from the south-east, circled for 15 minutes, and then attempted to land before a thuggish gang of corvids saw it off the premises. Teal numbers have now risen to over 500 and make for an evocative visit, what with the whistling calls and the compact speeding flocks arrowing across the farm.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Christmas books


Christmas is coming,

The waxwings are getting fat,

Please put a penny in this ex-twitcher’s hat…

May I present the North Downs and Beyond Christmas book round-up. Over the past 12 months these books have caught my eye and are worthy of gracing any naturalists bookshelf. Ask your loved ones or friends to buy them for you as Christmas gifts – it beats a pair of socks and a Jeremy Clarkson paperback any day.


The Running Sky by Tim Dee

This is quite simply the best book that I have come across that explains the wonder, joy and hurt that watching birds can bring to human beings. Part autobiography, the author cherry picks events from his life and couples them with a month of the year, starting in June and ending in May.Birds act as a conduit to exposing his emotions towards the natural world and the people who share his life. The first chapter sets the reader up for the delights to come, with a vivd description of a cliff top vigil at a seabird colony. I almost considered an overnight drive to Bempton cliffs after reading it. Buy it now!

North Downs rating: 10 out of 10


A Single Swallow by Horatio Clare

I liked the premise of this book – to follow the hirundines on their spring migration from South Africa back to the authors home in Wales. He tries to time his own overland passage with theirs. The book delivers much more. Clare’s writing is as much a travelogue as it is a study of the swallow, which reminded me of the work of Redmond O’Hanlon, which is praise indeed. The author’s mental breakdown towards the end of the journey is unexpected when considering his devil-may-care attitude that is brought to the expedition, and draws a neat parallel between the Swallows precarious migration and his own.

NDR: 9 out of 10.


Weeds by Richard Mabey

The author should need no introduction as he is one of the leading figures in the so called ‘New Wave’ of nature writing. This is an intelligent work which introduces us to ‘weeds’ and explains why they deserve our admiration, from the way in which they have evolved to fool us into thinking that their seeds are the same as the very crop that they grow alongside, to the uses that they have to humanity (as food and medicine) and also the folklore that has grown up in their relationship with us that reflects the longevity of our relationship with them. You do not to be botanically minded to enjoy this book and you may after reading it to never weed a garden again.

NDR: 9 out of 10


The Bird Observatories of Britain and Ireland by various authors

A Poyser publication, which I’ll admit to not having read yet. A copy of this book was snatched out of my sweaty palms by my wife to be hidden away until Christmas Day. I cannot wait to read it! As a big fan of bird observatories, I can boast (or sadly admit to) having stayed at Dungeness Bird Obsevatory close to 550 nights, spent several breaks at Portland Bill and enjoyed a fortnights holiday at Spurn. These establishments have been instrumental in our current understanding of bird migration and identification. As to what role, and what future they have to play in the 21st century is a question that I for one am keen to see answered. Expect potted histories, plenty of rarities and enough ringing data to keep you satiated well into the new year.

NDR: to be announced.


STOP PRESS: A single calling Waxwing flew over me this lunchtime in Sutton. (Tilmouth and Sexton! Stop yawning at the back of the class. We haven't had that many down south yet!)

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Uber patch update

Earlier in the year, in a moment of inspiration, I formed my north-east Surrey Uber patch. This came about one evening when, looking at an OS map, I realised that my regular natural history patches could, with a little imagination and create thinking, be linked together to form one area. With my recent return to Beddington SF, I'm delighted to say that this addition forms a natural extention north-eastwards. Result!

In moments of fancy I consider writing up an Uber patch report, collating all of my observations made in this magnificent part of Surrey (Magnificent? Surrey? In the same sentence?) To tell you the truth, I have already done just that for the birds. Each of the 201 species that I have recorded have an account commenting on status, larger counts, early and late dates for migrants and details of all records of the scarcer birds. For a land locked area the list is, I think, impressive. After 35 years of recording maybe that is to be expected. It also tells the tale of local extinctions and colonisations rather clearly.

I have started to collate the plant and lepidoptera records and I hope to have something to show by the end of 2011. Why am I doing it? For the sheer pleasure of doing so, that's why.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The blossoming of Canons Farm

Back in 2002, after a morning botanising in Chipstead Bottom, I looked at my OS map and decided to take a short cut home through farmland. Even though I was no more than two miles from home, I had not visited the area before. I was pleasantly surprised at how picturesque the land was and more than interested in the singing Yellowhammer and displaying Lapwing that I found. I made a mental note to revisit…

I t was another three years before I did so, when a Yellow Wagtail flying through a clear April sky reminded me that I really ought to take a serious look at the place. And so, in the autumn of 2005 I did so. I had trawled through my old London and Surrey Bird Reports but could find no mention of the farm. It appeared to have not been actively birded before and I felt as if I were pioneering a new patch. I met no other birders and gathered ornithological data with keenness. My coverage was not quite weekly and I found species such as Crossbill and an immature female Goshawk that got the pulse racing and also revealed significant wintering flocks of Skylarks and Yellowhammers.

Over the next three years I gave Canons Farm moderate coverage and added Woodlark to the list of unexpected species. The one event that brought the farm to local prominence was ’my’ massive flock of winter finches in early 2008, that peaked at 1200 Brambling and 1650 Chaffinches. At least 50 birders made the trip to watch the spectacle.

At the end of 2009 David Campbell, a local schoolboy, arrived as a regular observer. His enthusiasm and keen eye proved what I had earlier suspected, that Canons Farm was somehow special. Through sheer hard work, during 2010, he has found Raven, Black Redstart, Goshawk, Osprey, Quail and Corn Bunting – and before you jump to conclusions that some of these must be the imaginings of a yound mind, they are all either multi-observer records or have been photographed.

For me, his best find, and the crown jewel of Canons Farm sightings so far, is not the rarest. Yesterday evening, David, typically keen, decided to visit the farm in the last murky hour of daylight on a cold and damp afternnon. He was rewarded with a superb male Hen Harrier. He watched it go to roost and, at 06.58 this morning I was very happy indeed to see this stunning beast take to the air and head purposefully eastwards.

What next for Canons Farm? Well, it is a site that will only reward those who bird it intensely. My occasional forays before this year proved that it can deliver, but not on the scale that David’s efforts have proved. It can be hard work in the spring and summer. Autumn sees it at its best and winter can be interesting as well.

My fear is that if David loses interest or moves away from the area, the current coverage will not be maintained and the records will once again , if not totally dry up, then certainly slow down significantly.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Gull time

It's not everybody's cup of tea to spend a few relaxing hours sifting through gulls. The scene above was taken this morning at the northern lake, Beddington Sewage Farm. If you are really keen and want to play the larid version of 'Where's Wally', then click on the image for a bigger picture. If you find a Med Gull then let me know, because I didn't. I did find an adult Yellow-legged, but could not refind the Caspian Gull that I saw two weeks ago and has been seen on and off since. Today's counts included 2,500 Black-headed and 2,000 Herring. The numbers will only increase...

Friday, 5 November 2010

Taking the waiting out of wanting

Back in 1976 I was a student at Epsom Art College. At that time, one of our tutors showed us an advertisement that was running in newspapers and magazines that really upset him. It was for Barclaycard, with the headline of 'Takes the waiting out of wanting'. He shook his head, nonplussed by the implied invitation for people to take out a card and gain instant credit. "We'll end up with a population in debt!" he wailed. He had predicted the financial breakdown in our society years before it actually came to pass...

I kind of feel the same way about the ways of modern birding. We want, we get. Information is at our fingertips, this information is updated constantly, we can read first-hand accounts of rarities, we know exactly where they are, we know the best time of day to visit- if I want to see Waxwings or an American Bittern tomorrow, then I can. Get in the car and go! No map reading needed (set the sat nav), arrive on site and look for the crowds. Job done. Without coming over all arty, this method rather disconnects us from a relationship with nature. It is more of a relationship with technology.

As an antidote to immediacy I am posting a photograph of bluebells in Banstead Woods. Even if you had millions to spend, unlimited data and all the time in the world, you will not, you cannot see such a sight tomorrow. You WILL have to wait until next April and May to do so. It puts the waiting back into wanting...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A letter to Lee Evans

On the Surfbirds forum, in response to last nights BBC4 programme about twitching, Lee Evans posted an open letter, asking, among other things, whether or not he ought to pack it all in. He felt that his popularity was waning and the antagonism against him building. I did reply...

Hi Lee,

I am commenting on this situation as a lapsed twitcher and somebody that has only met you a few times, and that was back in the late 70s and early 80s. I am still an active birder and, although I rarely go to a rare bird, I know plenty who still do.

You are correct in stating that you do have your critics, but I am sure that you would expect this when you set yourself up as a ‘policeman’ and ‘judge, jury and executioner’ to the birding world (I think that they were your words, and if I’m incorrect, forgive me). As you have never been elected, or asked to keep a watching brief on all the UK birders lists’ (as to accuracy and honesty), then again, you cannot be surprised when this causes offence or indignation among them.

There are over a million members of the RSPB and viewing figures for BBC’s Autumn watch well in excess of that. I doubt that any more than a few thousand of them have heard of you, the UK400 club or any other twitcher for that matter. Therefore the pool of birders who you have (or have not) annoyed is quite insignificant compared to those who get enjoyment out of ornithology. That is worth keeping in perspective.

People who join the UK400 club are willing members and as such agree to abide by the rules as set out by the club (and by ‘the club’ I assume that means you). If they do not agree with this then they can leave. Those that are left are under no illusion as to what to expect. What anybody else in the birding world thinks is, to be quite honest, not your problem. If some of the aggrieved are within your club membership, then that needs your urgent attention.

You have asked for feedback and for what it’s worth my humble opinion is that you needn’t worry about what others say, you don’t need to close your club and you should carry on doing what you are obviously passionate about. Those that have a problem with you can just ignore you and your club, because whatever you say, whatever your club rules are and what species you accept or dismiss is of no relevance to them. Maybe your need to ‘control’ other birders lists is an area that you should address if you are serious about building bridges. This appears to be a major area of conflict.

I think it’s good to have characters in all walks of life, and you are certainly that. One less would be a great shame.

Kind regards,

Steve Gale

Monday, 1 November 2010

Birding and the culture of blame

Over the past few days there has been a fair amount of internet chatter regarding the conduct of birders when they have been in the presence of rare species. I have deliberately avoided the use of the word 'twitcher' to describe the birders gathered at the alleged crime scenes as I'm sure that there were plenty of those present who do not want to be labelled with that overused word. There is nothing wrong with admitting to, or claiming to be a twitcher, but the word has become a lazy journalistic term for birders per se.

Ever since birders, ornithologists or, whisper it, twitchers have gathered, there have been tales of bird harassment and unruly behaviour. It is not a modern phenomenon. Those who have been lamenting a break down in birding society have not done their research.

Rare birds have always got the attention of the active birdwatcher. Anyone who has spent their time counting swallows migrating along the coast would cheer a red-rump amongst them; every ringer undertaking scientific study will have their pulse quicken when they discover an Aquatic Warbler in the mist net; every patch worker will remember the day when a scarce bird graced their own little corner of Britain. Everyone. Without exception.

So, when the chat-rooms are full of tales of poor fieldcraft dressed up as napalm-welding birding terrorists, are we to believe that the authors have never run to see a bird? Not even broken into a trot? Will they admit to, especially when unobserved, nipping over a fence to check out a funny pipit? Or tap a bush in which a skulking warbler just would not vacate? No, I doubt that there is a birder on the planet that hasn't, in the heat of the moment, done something that they ordinarily wouldn't do.

If you have driven several hundred miles, spent a wallet full of money and have also run the risk of a divorce to get to a bird, it would take the will of a trapist monk not to push the boundaries a little to be able to see the quarry. And quarry is what it is. We are all collectors, with our lists, our data gathering, our books, our knowledge.

As long as a bird is not unduly harassed or habitat destroyed, is there any real harm in a walk across a field or a wander along a hedgerow? There is a culture of blame in our society, and maybe the world of birding is not immune to this.

A lobbed brick into a reed bed - no.

Hourly walks across a field to flush a knackered migrant - no.

They are admittedly, representative of birding shades of black, and as to where acceptable behaviour begins is difficult to say, but where there is a crowd present there is normally order. If one or two hotheads try it on, they are normally pulled back and reprimanded. If someone decides to report on these isolated incidences as representative of the birding type, then this is how the myths of birding behaviour at twitches begin. And everyone loves controversy....

Friday, 29 October 2010

Laid back - a study in russet

It is a rare event when I go out into the field and not treat every living thing that I come across as something to identify (or at least try to), to write it down in a notebook and commit it to the giant database that I maintain at home. Today was different...

I have been aware for some time that my DSLR and various lenses have lay dormant, unused, and unloved. With all of the spectacular autumn colour on offer I was moved (yes, very Byronesque, I know) to get out and take some photographs. I used to dabble with illustration, and have been looking for a subject that will grab me enough to rekindle this lost art. Pattern and form have always been areas that I have gravitated towards, rather than realism. The natural world is full of both. So, this afternoon I wandered into Banstead Woods, sans binoculars set the camera function to manual, and snapped away.

I was quite pleased with the results. Muted colour on an overcast afternoon which has the basis for a number of illustrative projects. I also did not feel the need to worry about what species the trees or leaves were (although I could tell you if pushed). I was not tested as to my forced state of 'non-identification' by any possible Hawfinch, Waxwing or white-rumped Redpoll popping up in front of me or flying overhead calling. It made a refreshing change.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Scilly Stories (2)

October 1979. The Scillonian docked at St. Mary's and my first task was...to find somewhere to stay. At this time the previous day I had no idea that I would be on the fabled isles. I was in a studio at art college, charcoal in hand, nude model across the room (don't get too excited, think Ann Widdicombe), but a birding mate of mine was starting a two-week birding break and I just couldn't resist it. I got a lift down with him overnight from London, but accommodation would be a problem for me. He was staying in a flat that was already oversubscribed with birders to the point that there were people sleeping in the kitchen (I bet that now the flats are empty in late October). The prevoius autumn I had 'dossed' in the waiting room at the quay, but rumour had it the island authorities had cracked down on this type of behaviour, and the waiting room door was locked at night.

I quickly found a B&B, comfortable and not to expensive. The landlady was a pleasant soul, her husband a grumpy old git. You can tell from this laid back approach that there wasn't anything mega to go and see straight away. By early afternoon I was strolling around and had seen a Tawny Pipt and a Short-toed Lark (both on the golf course), when news of a Rustic Bunting broke - a bird that I needed. No sooner had I seen that than a kefuffle started at the end of the viewing line of birders and they start running away, to what we didn't know. I joined them, along with twenty or thirty others, a tangle of tripods, bags and ex-military clothing, a kakhi snake wiggling its way along a St.Mary's lane. After 400m the birders ahead of us had stopped and were looking at something. My mind raced well ahead of itself, all thoughts of American warblers and unheard of asian gems. But it was just a Subalpine Warbler, albeit a smart male. And I 'needed' it.

The two weeks were rather poor if truth be told, the best bird being a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak that was elusive and took me three days to catch up with, but when it did fly over my head, showing off the intense crimson underwing, it was worth the wait. There was also the Blyth's Reed Warbler (horrendously rare at the time) that, after being trapped, turned out to be a Marsh Warbler. I relayed that tale on the original North Downs and Beyond blog.

On my return to art college (after being missing for a fortnight), my tutor asked me where I had been. Thinking on my feet I lied that there had been a family crisis that was rather personal, and that I didn't want to talk about it. He accepted it and no more was said. Phew...

Monday, 25 October 2010

Latin names

I used to know most of the latin names of the birds of the Western Palearctic. I've forgotten a few of them now, but can still surprise myself with plucking them out of the air. A colleague at work would often test me, even though he isn't a birder, because it amused him. Some latin names are so apt, and I don't mean by their literal translation. Scolopax rusticola says Woodcock to me more than the word Woodcock does. Lymnocryptes minimus describes a cryptically-plumaged small skulking thing much better than Jack Snipe does. Pallas's Warbler does create an image by association, but not as much as Phylloscopus proregulus, which sounds far more stately and regal, as befits such a jewel. I had a birding friend who just couldn't get to grips with latin and used to make his own up, but he didn't make them up terribly well. So, in his birding world, Reed Bunting was, in all seriousness, Reedus Buntingus. I still think of that species by that name in honour of his ways. Maybe we should all wander around proclaiming species in latin - it would stop all this Wood Nuthatch and Pied Avocet nonsense.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

2618

I spent a few minutes (oh alright, a bit more than that), looking back at photographs that I had taken earlier in the autumn of lichen. My basic field guides and a knowledge that what I was claiming was dirt common has led me to confidently identify a further four species. Together with an additional moss and another fungi brings my UK all-taxa list up to 2,618. I present to you a photograph of Evernia prunastri, if only to convince unbelievers that lichen can be stunning. It also gives you something to do when the birds are quiet.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Albert Ross? Who's he?

I've just re-read yesterday's post and see that I have spelt Albatross as Albertross. Dude or what? Losing my grip? The evaporation of any birding knowledge that I once held? Yes, yes and yes. So, no mention today of Bramberlings, Palarses Warblers or even Grate Gray Shrikes... as any fule kno.

Note to self: There are Lapland Buntings everywhere - go out and bloody well find one.

Note to any Red-flanked Bluetails reading this: Surrey is quite a nice place to visit.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Scilly stories (1)

It's October, and once-upon-a-time that used to mean that I would be embarking on a trip to the fabled Isles of Scilly. As a callow youth I had heard tales about the birding wonders that they offered. The previous autumn of 1975 had set new ornithological highs with Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Black-and-white Warbler, together with a stunning back-up that even today would get the UK400 club weak at the knees. I didn't go in 76 or 77, but 1978 saw me unexpectedly sitting on the Scillonian one Saturday morning as part of a long-distance twitch. A Semi-palmated Plover had been found on St Agnes, a bird new for Britain and new for me in many ways as I had never heard of one before. The journey across was uneventful. As we docked, I felt as if I were undergoing a rite of passage. I was here...

To cut a long story short, we saw the Plover (oh so boring), waltzed around the island in double quick time (RB Fly, RB Shrike), back onto St Mary's (LB Dowitcher), dossed in the harbour waiting room (I bet that doesn't happen now!), spent Sunday on Tresco (Black Duck) and then... the weekend got more interesting.

An Isabelline Shrike had been trapped at Winspit in Dorset. The team I was with all needed it. Monday saw us first in the queue at the airport to buy the last four seats on the helicopter. Our return journey on the Scillonian would have questioned our ability to get to Winspit before dark. As the helicopter took off we all slapped each other on the back for being so damn smart to get the last four seats. After a quick stop at Hayle (Sociable Plover), we arrived at Winspit with plenty of daylight left. There was one slight problem though - no shrike. After kicking around the area for a few hours that status didn't change. The light was fading. We decided to give up and started to trudge back up the valley to the car, to be met by a group of birders who had left Scilly that morning on the Scillonian, the ship that we should have been on but for our speed at getting to the airport. Even though we told them that the shrike had gone they were all ecstatic. Hadn't we heard? Everyone on that sailing had watched a Black-browed Albertross sitting on the water. Everyone. No string, no three-birder fly past, they all saw it. We felt deflated. Had we not been so quick to the airport we would have seen it as well. I can distinctly remember one of our number saying, "F@*% me, when we got on that helicopter we thought we were the cat's pyjama's". Quite.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Exotic flora

The landfill area at Beddington SF has waxed and waned over the past few years, with deep holes filled with refuse, covered in soil and finally landscaped. One interesting by-product of this process is a flora that has been transported to the site and which has plenty of interest, mainly due to the exotic nature of the species composition. This Sunday one small part of an earth mound was bursting with colour. Close examination revealed a Sunflower (pictured), Nasturtium, Purple Toadlax and Michaelmas Daisy. I could have returned home with a more than passable bouquet of flowers for my youngest daughter Jessica. I am looking forward to combing the farm next year as I'm sure that there will be a host of alien plants to record.

On the bird front a light but steady passage of finches, larks and pipits kept us busy, including a sprinkling of Brambling. The Ruff from last weekend was still about, along with 9 Green Sandpipers.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Oddie versus Packham

Now that BBC's Autumnwatch is into its second series, I reckon the right time has come to ask the question that needs to be addressed - who is the better presenter - the original, Bill Oddie, or his replacement, Chris Packham? Using a series of highly scientific experiments I believe that this can be sorted once and for all.

Birding know how
CP exhibits a good knowledge of ornithological matters. His strengths may lay in those areas away from pure identification. WEO is a hoary old time birder through and through, scarred from various campaigns on many distant northern islands and sojourns on Scilly. His find rate will be higher. But if you ask them to write an essay on 'The Life of a Spotted Flycatcher' then CP may shade it. If you ask them both to sift through a fall of migrants on Blakeney Point then WEO should burn CP up. Hard to call but...
WEO wins

All-round natural history knowledge
WEO is a bit of a one-trick pony here. It's birds, birds, birds all the way. CP can probably outdo WEO on an all-taxa list, and know most of what he was looking at without using 'other experts' for confirmation.
CP wins

Fighting
CP may have youth on his side, and look fairly athletic, but WEO has extra weight and does come over as someone that can blow a fuse. When driven to anger I reckon WEO would be a flurry of fists and boots that CP could not respond to.
WEO wins

Drinking
Hard one to call this. It's easy to assume that CP might be a bit lightweight, but I reckon his alcohol tolerance would be better than WEO's. The latter may well fall asleep after a couple of pints. If it was the last man standing who wins, then the point goes to youth.
CP wins

Pulling power
Deciding category. Kate Humble has the casting vote on this one. A source close to the programme has said: "Bill was never interested in Kate. He found her a bit annoying and girlish. There again, Kate wasn't interested in short dumpy men with beards. Chris pays Kate Humble far more attention, which she likes. He's younger and better looking, although Kate thinks that his haircut is a bit wimpish and too young for him. Truth is, Chris is far more interested in the spider crawling through her poodle-like hair than in her. However, she wouldn't climb over him in a bed to get to Bill'.
CP wins

So, there we have it, Chris Packham is the undisputed better presenter. However, if he ever comes up against that muscle-bound Steve who appeared on the Bhutan tiger documentaries, he'd get his arse well and truly spanked.


Thursday, 14 October 2010

A fall, a fall, my rarity for a fall

There may well be plenty of rare birds around at the moment, but in the Birdguides weekly round-up the following caught my eye:

'September is normally the peak month for arrivals of Robin and Song Thrush, but the main arrival seemed to be this week along the east coast. A flavour of the migrants involved comes from Holme Bird Observatory (Norfolk), where standard counts on 10th produced 4,500 Robins, 2,500 Song Thrushes, 6,500 Redwings, 250 Chiffchaffs, 7,000 Goldcrests, an impressive 300 Long-tailed Tits, 11 Jays, 1,500 Chaffinches, 800Bramblings, 600 Greenfinches and 1,100 Siskins.'

I would sooner have experienced the spectacle above rather than have seen any of the rare species on offer this week...

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Sod's law

Poor Gavin Haig. Our man from Devon, that Seaton patch-watcher extraordinaire, having thrashed his local area for the past god-knows how many months, has taken a birding sabbatical. No doubt he was looking forward to going to the Isles of Scilly. It was his chance to trawl through a few rare and scarce birds as an antidote to the (in comparison) modest fayre that his home patch can offer. I can only imagine the cold sweat of horror that must have swept over him when, in the middle of a post-birding beer in a pub on St. Mary's, he found out that those he left behind in Seaton had only gone and found a Solitary Sandpiper. And it's still there. Has he bolted yet to return home and see it? Is he maintaining a cool exterior, chuckling at his mates good fortune, tutting at the unfairness of the birding gods? If I were him I'd be crying into my binoculars and would be considering giving up birding altogether...

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Back to Beddington 2

I spent most of the day at Beddington SF as I now have become a member of the bird group, and have a key to enter the site. The two 'new' lakes are the obvious focus of the site, but I was delighted to see that some of the old-fashioned sludge lagoons (picture above) remain from 'back in the day'. I wandered the banks of these lagoons in the 1970s and 80s, and doing so again today brought back many happy memories. It was all still there - the rank vegetation, the Beddington pong (a mixture of green growth and sewage) and the birds. I flushed Green Sand, Common Sand and Snipe from these beds which will always to me be Beddington birds.

Elsewhere on the farm was a Ruff, Rock Pipit, good counts of Teal and three Beddington ticks - Common Buzzard, Ring-necked Parakeet and Egyptian Goose! A clear illustration that the passing of time does indeed change local bird populations, so that you can bowl up sixteen years later and add birds to the area list with gay abandon.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Yesterday's gulls today

When I began birding, gulls were practically ignored by most birders - unless it was something easily identifiable, such as an Iceland or Glaucous Gull... or a nice adult Mediterranean. Meds were still rare then, and non-adult plumages were a real challenge for most. Any large gull that was not in adult plumage was shunned. It was an unwritten rule that they were, on the whole, unidentifiable. A few birders came along who changed that perception. One of them was Peter Grant. Because we were both Dungeness regulars I got to know him well, and can remember him critically analysing the few gull skins that were housed in a cabinet in the observatory. He made sketches, spent a long time at the power station water outflow where gulls gathered and similarly at the RSPB reserve where a significant roost assembled. We both sat in a hide overlooking this roost and he asked me to go through the motley collection of larids that had gathered, and to make my best attempt at ageing and identifying them. He was interested in finding out what the 'normal' birder knew about gulls and how much of his newly found knowledge was, in field conditions, workable. He did this with many, many people. From this interest, nay passion of his, which stretched back to the early sixties, he wrote the first identification guide to gulls, which was published by Poyser. If you look at it now, it appears somewhat insubstantial for modern needs. There are fewer species covered with a scant regard of racial differences. But, because of this book, it enabled the rest of us to take to gull watching and identify them with some confidence. The only reason that we can now tackle such thorny subjects as Caspian, Heuglin's and Baltic Gulls is because today's gull guru's have all benefitted from PJG's trailblazing.

So, in 2010, where are the main challenges to the UK birder? What do we have comparable to the sub-adult gull of the 1960s and 1970s? Answers on a postcard please...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Back to Beddington

The first 'proper' birding site that I visited was Beddington Sewage Farm. This was back in 1974 and I was 15 years old. I cannot tell you how excited I was as I walked onto the hallowed ground - I had read about it in John Gooders 'Where to watch birds' and expected to be overcome with species that I had never seen before. In truth it was a bit of a let down, but I had started on a 12 year unbroken association with the place.

In those early years the farm still held onto characteristics of the old-fashioned sewage works, with large open fields that periodically flooded, red brick pump-houses and there were still rows of elms (just about to be decimated by Dutch Elm disease). I saw many species for the first time, including Short-eared Owl, Jack Snipe and Water Pipit - classic Beddington birds. The odd rarer species came along, with Bluethroat, Spotted Crake, Temminck's Stint and Lesser Yellowlegs the pick of the crop.

By 1986 I had wandered away from regular visits, although I did pop in now and again. The farm was fenced by 1990 and only key-holders were admitted, and as a non-regular I was not issued with one. In 1993 I did get my hands on one and spent the next year reliving my youth. The farm was much changed. A lake had been constructed which acted as a magnet to species that had, up until then, been scarce at Beddington, including wildfowl and terns. A birding group has also been formed which was still in its infancy. I must admit to being a bit bemused by it all. This wasn't the same Beddington as I had known and it was full of strangers. I did not really enjoy the experience and I returned my key even though the birding had not been better there since the glory days of the 1940s and 1950s.

Last week I noticed that there was a key up for grabs once again and I applied for it. I'm glad to say that the group has endorsed my application. Once more I will be birding at this historical ornithological site, which has data going back almost 80 years - how many other sites can that be said of? So, why am I returning?

Local patch watching needs to be stimulating. I also reckon that it needs water. My efforts at Holmethorpe have been enjoyable and rewarding, but that site has become very hard to cover effectively. All water bodies are out of bounds and need to be viewed behind fences and high hedgerows. Both Mercer's Lake and Mercer's West are almost impossible to bird. Spyne's Mere can only be viewed from one side. Watercolours will, before long, be shielded by planted trees. Gulls, an interest of mine, are similarly out-of-bounds, spending most of the day within the landfill site. All of this has done much to drive prospective 'patch birders' away. At Beddington, these are not problems. I'm not suggesting that the sewage farm does not have its own local issues, but undisturbed birding, with clear panoramic views, is something that I can expect and will not take for granted ever again. There is a thriving group of birders of which I hope to be an active part of. There will be change from my last stint there in the mid 1990s. The structure of the farm is in flux. Species that did not occur do so now - raptor passage is a newish feature, Caspian Gulls are regular and there is a dynamic flora waiting to be surveyed.

For me, local birding has just looked up.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Say cheese!

At the end of last year, I set myself a target of photographing 500 species of plant by the end of 2010. Some time during July I managed to reach that total and am now well on the way to 550 species that have posed for me. They sit neatly in folders on my computer and are backed-up on a removable hard disk and various DVD's. I'm ridiculously proud of my humble collection. Each image tells a story. Some of the plants gave themselves up without much of a battle to get that defining image. Others still refuse to give themselves up. Every attempt to photograph Hairy Bittercress, (absurdly common), has ended in failure.

Why do I do it? Well, partly because flowers are beautifully complex structures that can be visually breathtaking and therefore are worthy of a second look at leisure, particularly in the middle of winter when there isn't much on offer botanically. Also it's good to have a reference for the future. I don't pick plants and therefore I do not maintain a herbarium. Also it's cheaper than collecting works of art, stamps, military medals or racing cars. Come to think of it, I stand no chance of becoming a middle-aged lothario unless I did take up the latter option. I cannot see myself pulling by taking a woman upstairs on the promise of showing her my series of Downy Willows from Ben Lawers. The picture is of Flowering Rush, one of my favourites species. The picture doesn't do it justice. If you get the chance to seek out this species you will not be disappointed.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Going local

The weather stymied my biding at either end of the day (fog in the morning, then persistant rain from mid-afternoon), but Holmethorpe Sand Pits did produce a Water Rail, 2 Common Sandpipers, a Green Sandpiper and a Brambling, while Canons Farm also yielded a Brambling. I spent a good hour on Nutfield Ridge looking at fungi. They are not easy. I believe the picture above to be a Pestle Puffball, but please tell me if I'm wrong. Meadow Waxcaps were more straightforward and I have pictures of several more species that I need to look at more closely. This all-taxa listing lark is enjoyable but highly challenging.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Conkers, kids and pathogens

A wet and blustery morning saw me sheltering not only from the elements but also from horse chestnut fruits (conkers to me and you) being hurled to the ground, vicious weapons whose hard brown bullets were wrapped in spiky green armour. The thousands of conkers that were strewn across path and pavement are being left alone by the children of 2010. When I was a lad (cue black and white film of happy children frolicking in a world safe from all danger), there would have been gangs roaming the streets to lay claim to Horse Chestnut trees and would have already stripped the trees in question. Too impatient to wait for nature to take its course, we would have hurled stones and sticks up into the branches to dislodge the conkers. Looking down at the unclaimed haul at my feet this morning, I thought that there was as much chance of that having happened back in the 1960s as there having been half-crowns strewn over the pavement. (History lesson: pre-decimalisation in 1971, a half-crown was a coin whose value today would be twelve and a half pence. It was big and silvery).

The horse chestnut trees round here are looking pretty sickly. I don't know whether or not they are still suffering from Bleeding Canker (a fungal pathogen) and from the actions of the leaf miner Cameraria ohridella, but something is getting to them after flowering.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Options

I have all day Saturday too go birding. A 24 hour pass from domestic chores, not that I do that many domestic chores to be honest. There is a bit of painting and decorating that could be done, there's a back door that has started to stiffen up and a bit of insulating that could be laid in the loft. But no, they can wait (my wife may suggest that they permanently wait).

So, Saturday. Where to go? What to do?

The options are:

Dungeness. There are two Buff-breasted Sandpipers in the area and I've no doubt that migrants have been stirred up a bit this week so there could be plenty on offer.

Another south-east site: Oare Marshes (White-rumped Sandpiper), Bockhill (lovely place but I never score there), Pagham (an old favourite).

Birdguides: weigh up the options on Friday evening and follow the sheep to the nearest goody.

Stay local: hmmm, a few Yellow-broweds dotted about the country, Ring Ouzels leaping about urban wastelands throughout London, both of these would be more than acceptable locally.

At the moment, local trailblazing is winning. I could do a Holmethorpe/Colley Hill/ Canons Farm grand tour, but I really do need to tone down my expectations if I do this. Enjoy the day (it won't be pissing down as tomorrow and Sunday will be). There might even be a few late butterflies on the wing. This all sounds quite acceptable at the moment.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Serious, for a change

As one who normally posts with, shall we say, a 'glass half-empty' philosophy, it is high time that I became a touch more positive. What has turned me from Victor Meldrew into Archbishop Desmond Tutu? Believe it or not, I'm increasingly seeing good in my fellow birder. Yes, that right, good. Let me give you a couple of local examples.

There is a group of birders who stake out Beddington Farmlands (aka Beddington Sewage Farm). They are a mixture of rabid twitchers, dedicated patch workers and frontier birdsmen. The group was formed some twenty years ago, with modest but worthy aims to record the birdlife of the farm and publish the findings. A healthy Tree Sparrow population was studied through the ringing of nestlings. As time went by, various schemes to extract aggregate from the farm and then infill with refuse were hatched by big business. Some of these have come to fruition, but the group were there throughout consultations and public enquiries. Through such actions, patiently and calmly carried out, they now have a political presence that has given them a seat at the table to plan what will be a superb urban reserve when the digging and infilling is complete. This is down to 'birder power' which has been handled intelligently.

My second example is how one individual can make a difference to the perception of local people to the bird life around them. David Campbell is only 16 years old. He is as keen a birder as anyone you will meet. He does twitch, but this does not lessen his passion for the local patch. He has thrashed Canons Farm into submission, found a raft of excellent local species, but his most impressive skill-set for someone so young is his grasp of public relations. He manned a stand at the local country fair, spreading the wonder of the local bird life; he has set up a wiki for the farm that has many visitors, not all of them birders; he engages with the local dog walkers and shooters; he has got involved with the downland conservators when scrub clearance nearby threatened the wintering home of a small flock of Firecrests (that he had found).

These two examples are a lesson to us all, but particularly to me. In all the time that I have been birding, 95% of that time has been spent purely looking and recording. OK, that has meant that my observations have been collated by county bird clubs, the BTO and other wildlife bodies, so it hasn't been without its worth. But, if all that any of us did was just record the wildlife, then we would be falling short as a whole. We need these individuals and groups that go beyond that. We need the people who engage with non-birders, who debate with local authorities and lobby for habitat protection and creation. I should get involved and maybe I will. For the time being I'm using this post to say a big thank you to those that already do.

Tomorrow I may be back in a grumpy, frivolous mood and post more pictures of obscure insects or discuss how things really were better in the crappy seventies.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Wanstead comes to the North Downs

Another addition to my Blog List, this time from Wanstead Birder. Anyone who can see 200 species of bird in London within a calendar year (and it isn't even October yet) is certainly worthy of a read. His latest post, which tells the tale of a route march to Blakeney Point to see a certain flycatcher, is well worth reading. The only time that I've trudged that same shingly ground didn't seem too bad to me, but then again it was during August and I was still in my fit twenties. That particular day was not a success - I had gone to see a Royal Tern, that didn't show, and was later identified as a Lesser Crested any way. Mistakes like that don't happen any longer, do they....

Monday, 27 September 2010

Crane fly on migrane inducing peeling paint

This is Tipula maxima, or a daddy-long-legs with heavily patterned wings to you and I. Please excuse the headache inducing peeling paint that it decided to land upon. Another tick (a very common tick) in my pointless rush towards 3,000 in my all-taxa UK list! A boy's got to have something to do, give me a break...

Also, please spend a bit of time to visit the latest addition to my blog list, 'The Lyon's Den'. This chap knows how to mix and match his natural history and the lucky so-and-so does it for a living. Most envious.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

A picnic with hirundines

There are still some days when the 'hard-core' birder within me tries to break out. Today was such a day. I was sitting on the beach at Ferring, in West Sussex with my family enjoying a rather fine picnic lunch. The sun was shining and the only ornithological interference came from a couple of Sandwich Terns that were patrolling the beach. Then the cloud arrived, and with it the first House Martins, which flew low and purposefully westwards, some of them passing inbetween our sitting group. After five minutes it was obvious that these hirundines were not an isolated flock but the vanguard of something altogether grander. I spent more time paying attention to the visible migrants (apart from when it was time for coffee and cake!) and it was then that I ached for that Empidonax flycatcher on Blakeney Point or one of the inland Gannets that have delighted a number of patchworkers. Calming my birding hyperventalation down, I kept calm, and for the next two hours reckoned on 12,000 House Martins having poured through our picnic site. Magic.

Caddis fly update: I reckon that it is a Limnephilus lunatus. I could be wrong...

Friday, 24 September 2010

Stumped by a caddis fly

In my attempt to identify everything that is living in the UK, I thought that I would start off with this humble caddis fly. My Collins Insect guide kindly illustrates 29 species but also mentions that there are just under 200 species to be found in Britain. As my specimen (photograph above) matches none of them I had to admit that here was a family that needed deeper research. I went onto bioimages brilliant photographic website (thousands of obscure species at your fingertip) but still could not match up my insect. That leaves me with three options: investing in the Field Studies Council 'Guide to adult caddisflies' (only £3.50 folks!); appealing to someone out there knowing what this is; or more likely me never knowing its true identity.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Henbane

This is Henbane. It is a member of the nightshade family and is very poisonous. It contains hyoscyamine and hyoscine, poisons that Doctor Crippin used to good effect when bumping off his wife back in the early 20th century. Unfortunately for him, a noose ended his own life shortly afterwards.

I had not seen this species until last June, when I stumbled upon 20 healthy plants that were growing in a chalky field that had had large quantities of manure dumped upon it. They were of a good size and pleased me greatly. (It really doesn't take much to please me greatly nowadays). The field was along the banks of the River Mole between Mickleham and Leatherhead.

Some authors consider this an evil looking plant, but I cannot see the darkness in it. In fact I reckon that Deadley Nightshade has more 'something of the night' about it.
Please accept this post in lieu of not having anything else to bore you with.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The whole shooting match

So, you fancy broadening your natural history horizons. You've spent many happy days in the company of birds and as a by product of this have taken notice of the butterflies and dragonflies that you see buzzing around. Moths are a natural progression and of course you start to take an interest in their food plants, so you add botany to your wildlife arsenal. And now it all gets a bit tricky.

I have started (and stopped) and started again to look at other things. Hoverflies. Fungi. Mosses and liverworts. Spiders. The truth is, they just aren't like the other families that I have studied. For a start, there are not fully comprehensive field guides to guide you through the species that you will find. You will be given a firm push towards which family or genus that the organism before you belongs to, but to be confident of identifying it to species level - well, that will now involve complicated keys (which are either obscure or a devil to use), microscopes and a dictionary (to find out what the hell the new vocabulary you will come across actually means).

I've recently added my all-species list to Mark Telfer's 'All taxa listing' web page, which has inspired me to start trying to identify every gnat, smut and lichen that I come across. But to do so correctly is a challenge. I suppose it is no different if a mycologist suddenly took up birding, we wouldn't expect them to look at a reed bed full of acrocephallus warblers and confidently pick out the Blyth's Reed, or be able to claim that the pipit before him was a definite Tree. The learning curve ahead is either very long, or steep, and in reality probably both. But think of the rewarding hours ahead.

There is, of course, the risk of becoming a natural history jack-of-all-trades and a master of none of them. But as I do not do any of this in a professional capacity then it really doesn't matter. I always think back to my early birding days when I strode across the mountain tops of Scotland in persuit of such species as Dotterel without a care for the flora at my feet and wish that I had taken that all in - I must have stepped on some choice alpine plants. In turn, I may come to rue the days that I did spend botanising on Ben Lawers but took no notice of the mosses and lichen.

I do have one problem. My wife has accepted the odd moth being kept in the fridge, but I have a feeling of certainty in my water that flies, beetles and spiders will not be tolerated.